“The Height to Be Superb Humanity”: Walt Whitman’s Christmas Greeting to a New Democracy (Poems for Christmas #3)

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It is quite possible that Walt Whitman sent the best Christmas card ever in 1889, and he sent it to an entire country. That year, a Brazilian field marshal named Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca overthrew Emperor Dom Pedro II and declared the nation a republic. On Christmas Day, seventy-year-old Whitman wrote a brief poem called “Christmas Greeting” to welcome Brazil into the family of democratic nations. Unlike nearly every other Christmas poem I admire, this is not a poem about the birth of Christ. It is a poem about the birth of democracy.

Whitman thought a lot about what it meant to live in a democracy. He was born at a time when self-government was a new thing—an exciting experiment whose success was by no means guaranteed. And he lived through the cataclysm of the American Civil War—one of the most severe tests that any democracy has ever faced.

Almost everything that Whitman wrote was, at some level, an attempt to understand and explain the deepest principles of democracy. These principles went well beyond social organization. Democracy as he saw it was simply the social extension of the idea that all human beings have equal worth. And only human beings who grasp this principle—really grasp it—can make a democratic society work. Democratic government, Whitman understood, required democratic people, or people who recognize the truth of fundamental human equaltiy. And this is what he told the Brazilians in his Christmas greeting. Here is the whole poem:

Welcome, Brazilian brother—thy ample place is ready;
A loving hand—a smile from the north—a sunny instant hail!
(Let the future care for itself, where it reveals its troubles, impedimentas,
Ours, ours the present throe, the democratic aim, the acceptance and the faith;)
To thee to-day our reaching arm, our turning neck—
to thee from us the expectant eye,
Thou cluster free! thou brilliant lustrous one! thou, learning well,
The true lesson of a nation’s light in the sky,
(More shining than the Cross, more than the Crown,)
The height to be superb humanity.

This is a wholly secular Christmas poem. Whitman was not quite an atheist, but he did have trouble distinguishing between himself, God, everybody else, and the Universe. But he was a thoroughgoing humanist. He believed that human beings have all the divinity that we need to make it through this world. His poem invokes the secular meaning of Christmas, a holiday celebrating universal human brotherhood, goodwill, and good feelings.

This is a side of humanity that is more on display during the Christmas season than at any other time, and it is also an absolute requirement of citizenship in a democracy. Whitman understood that ordinary humanity will not do. Ordinary people lack the tools to make self-government work. Ordinary human nature is too tribal and petty, too willing to hate what does not resemble itself, too quick to become angry, too slow to forgive, and too willing to set aside hopes and be governed by fears. These are the things that will kill a democratic society. Self-government requires superb humanity.

And this is perhaps the big nugget of spiritual truth at the center of Whitman’s secular Christmas greeting: Meaningful participation in a self-governing society requires the same things of us that the spiritual Kingdom of God requires: loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. And it also requires charity, or the belief that our political opponents are, like us, decent human beings doing their best with limited understanding–and not fundamentally flawed human beings who are crazy, stupid, or evil.

The best analytical description of what Whitman meant by “superb humanity” comes from a devotional speech entitled “The Hard Work of Understanding the Constitution” that that LDS federal judge Thomas B. Griffith gave at BYU during the 2012 election season:

Disagreement is critical to the well-being of our nation. But we must carry on our arguments with the realization that those with whom we disagree are not our enemies; rather, they are our colleagues in a great enterprise. When we respect each other enough to respond carefully to argument, we are filling roles necessary in a republic.

Or, in other words, love thy political opponents.

All of this runs against the non-superb elements of human nature. But democracy calls us to be better than ordinary. So, too, did the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day. He taught us to reject what was natural, and therefore easy, and to undergo a mighty change of heart. He taught us to seek first the Kingdom of God. And he showed us that the Kingdom of God was within us. And, perhaps most importantly, He taught us that there was no distinction we need to notice between God and other people.

Comments

  1. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    Thanks Mike–Brilliant!

  2. Ah, I love this. I’m going to make my 2017 goals include a “reaching arm,” a “turn[ed] neck,” and an “expectant eye.”